Author Question: Condition of Body in Two Views

Angela Asks:

I am an Australian writer of crime fiction novels set in SE Asia, specifically Thailand. You can read more about me and my books here:

In my current novel, The Dying Beach, a body washes up in the shallows of a cave by a beach. I’ve done a bit of research on forensics and how you distinguish drowning from accidental death. What I hope you can help me with is the following.
The body is that of a young Thai woman. Would the skin of the corpse whiten if it had been in the water for say, 12 hours, or would the skin still appear olive?
The body is found by a war surgeon on vacation, floating face down. When the body is rolled over, would you expect to find the eyes open? Would they be clear or cloudy?
Is there anything else I should know about a corpse found in this state? 
FYI the corpse is found in shallow, tepid water.
Any advice you can give would be much appreciated.

Jordyn Says
I actually ran this question by two sources: a physician coworker and a forensic investigator. Here are their responses.
As far as the skin pigmentation– she said a person will retain the pigment. They might look gray but won’t be “whiter”. And you’ll have to consider how blood settles when someone dies.
As far as the eyes being open or closed– she thinks partly open because it takes muscles to keep your eyes closed and if you’re dead– these aren’t functioning anymore.
As far as the eyes looking cloudy– I know when I’ve taken care of patients that have died, the color in their irises– this is the colored part of your eye– definitely look like the color leaches out. Almost looking gray. So, no clear answer here– you could probably have a little creative license.
1)  A person’s skin pigmentation would not change unless the person has been dead for at least several weeks. Then the body would turn green and eventually black due to the decomposition. But this would take weeks into months depending on the environment the body is in (hot, cold, dry, humid, etc.).

2) When the body is rolled over the eyes may or may not be closed. There is no rhyme or reason for it. I would expect the eyes to be clear. Typically the eyes would become cloudy after the decedent has been dead for at least several days/weeks.
3) There really is not a whole lot more information. The hands would show sign of wrinkling, referred to as “washer woman hands”. This can make fingerprinting for identification difficult. Sometimes marine life will start to eat the body. This typically occurs about the face, eyes, and genitals. This of course would typically not occur within 12 hours of death. Another thing is when a body has been in the water for day(s) and is removed, decomposition will tend to accelerate. The bacteria has had no oxygen source as the body has been in water. Once the body is removed and the bacteria has a oxygen source, they really go to work to make up for lost time.

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